July 8, 2005 | By: Laura Skillman

Research by the University of Kentucky’s Tobacco Research and Development Center to breed a new crop plant that can be used to produce plant-made pharmaceuticals was highlighted during a recent national agricultural biotechnology conference.

KTRDC Director Maelor Davies outlined the center’s ongoing research at the 17th annual meeting of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council.

“Our new Nicotiana hybrids will represent a new crop exclusively used for the production of PMPs (plant-made pharmaceuticals),” he said. “KTRDC’s goal is to develop new crops to help tobacco farmers find a replacement or supplement as traditional tobacco production declines.”

There are several companies that use tobacco as the basis for their proprietary PMP technologies, but conventional tobacco is a very expensive crop to grow. For tobacco to be optimal for commercial PMP applications, production costs must be lowered and the growing process streamlined.

KTRDC’s efforts have focused on streamlining production methods and reducing costs, as well as improving the plant’s performance. Nicotiana will be suitable for mechanized production methods and will eventually exhibit improved disease resistance and other traits of value to PMP applications. Another factor to be considered, Davies noted, was the tobacco industry’s concern about the possibility of a contaminant getting into traditional tobacco products.

“We have developed a new plant variety and the production system that goes with it,” he said. “Nicotiana is essentially a new crop plant that, while based on tobacco, has traits that are compatible with all the tobacco-relevant PMP gene-expression technologies. It needs to be sterile so that it cannot transfer genes to traditional tobacco crops in adjacent fields. It should be identity preserved with an additional level of assurance in that it should look different.”

Tobacco has a number of relatives across the world with traits that can be used to develop such a crop. UK researchers are hybridizing traditional tobacco with other plants in the Nicotiana family to develop a plant for use with PMP production.

“We are quite close to announcing our select choice of a hybrid,” Davies said.
The new plant hybrids are called Nicotiana to distinguish them from conventional tobacco varieties.

Davies noted that there is an increasing demand for protein-based pharmaceuticals, called biologics, but there is a limited amount of fermentation capacity that can be used to produce these drugs. There is presently, therefore, renewed interest in the use of plants as the production platform. The KTRDC research is an example, Davies noted, of how to manufacture PMPs without using food crops such as corn or rice. 

“If you combine these situations, you should have opportunities both for the pharmaceutical industry and for agriculture,” he said.

Plant-made pharmaceuticals were one of several topics at the NABC meeting, which focused on using biotechnology to assist in health and the environment. Additional topics included regulation, consumer acceptance and risk management.

“The hallmark of NABC is that it provides a mix of opinions and experiences that you don’t usually get in any one scientific meeting,” said Nancy Cox, NABC chair and associate dean for research in the UK College of Agriculture.

NABC consists of not-for-profit agricultural research and educational institutions in the United States and Canada. This year’s conference was co-sponsored by UK and the University of Tennessee.

NABC works to define issues and public policy options related to biotechnology associated with food, agriculture and the environment and to promote increased understanding of the scientific, economic, legislative and social issues associated with agricultural biotechnology.


Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278

Contact: Maelor Davies, 859-257-5798